Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Peace in the Middle East in Starbucks

            The other evening, when I was at a Starbucks in Berkeley, studying for my social psychology exam, a middle-aged man came up to me and asked if he could sit down next to me because all other tables were taken. He looked well groomed—he had a jacked, his hair was combed back—but he was not cleanly shaved and he had a digital watch, the kind that men his age would not usually wear. He smelled fine, and he had a coffee cup filled with hot water, which he apparently got for free at the counter. He was Asian-American, and he must have been Chinese or Korean. I did not know whether to think of him as homeless or just as someone genuinely wanting to talk to somebody, but I amiably invited him to join me at my table. He had a calm demeanor, and his facial expression seemed a little grim. However, he appeared to be reasonably friendly, and asked me how I liked my Mac, and I enthusiastically told him that I loved it, and showed him a few cool features that it had, but when I asked him if he has a PC, he paused and then said that he used to have a PC.
            So there we were, sitting at Starbucks—me studying for my Sociology exam, and the man in the jacket drinking his water and glancing at what I was doing—and occasionally exchanging a few sentences about what we do and where we are from. He told me that he graduated from Berkeley in the early 90’s with an engineering degree, and that now he lives in Berkeley and thinks that’s where he is going live until he dies. He asked me what I was studying and I said I was studying Sociology and said that it’s a study of how society influences people’s choices, and that the society has a great effect on our choices and our behavior. Then he told me that he wondered why there was no rebellion during the Holocaust in Germany, and that he didn’t understand why the Jews who knew they were going to die anyway did not kill their oppressors, and he asked me what I thought about it. I told him that I didn’t know, but that my best guess would be that it’s hard to rebel on one’s own, alone without support from others. He said he also didn’t know what to think about it, but that he was pondering this question for quite some time.

 The same man, talking to another student at Starbucks.

            At one point a slide came up about the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, and that must have triggered his will to share with me that he just got out of jail for not paying for his food at a Thai restaurant. He said he spent five days there and that the conditions there are harsh, and that nobody cared about the prisoners, because he asked a guard to give him a blanket because cold air was blowing at him and he was afraid of catching cold, but that the guard did not do anything. Then he asked me what I thought about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He somehow knew that I was Jewish because when he referred to Israel he said “you”. “What would make you be at peace with Palestine,” he asked me. He also said that he wants to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that he is going to meet up with some Palestinian heads outside of Starbucks in a little bit. He told me that once he makes peace in the Middle East he will receive the Nobel Piece Prize. I went along with these questions of this well-meaning, deluded man, because he comes from the world I am all too familiar with. It made me feel more accepting of my own insanity and misery. How strange is it that hearing about others' misfortune brings such comfort to the soul? He asked me “how do you see me?”, referring to himself as the savior of the Jewish people, and still to me as the representative of the Jewish people. He continued, “do you see me as a lamb or as the devil?” Clearly he had a grandiosity complex about himself, and a major denial of reality, perhaps as a defense mechanism to his perception of his utter insignificance and loneliness. But who is to blame him? Don’t we all deceive ourselves—only some of us do it less blatantly than others—trying to protect our egos, through self-serving biases and a multitude of other defense mechanism we employ to deny reality—our utter insignificance in the world and the absurdity of our meaningless existence?
            The man hesitated then asked to use my computer for five minutes. I agreed and didn’t ask why. He said something about looking for a woman. He got out a business card with a name scribbled on it. He returned me the computer in a couple of minutes, and asked if I knew a woman by the name he mentioned. Naturally I said no, but wondered who she was. He said she is a ballerina, and that she was beautiful and that she was kind to him. He said that Jewish women were kind to him, and that’s what he liked about her. He said he saw her perform five years ago and was trying to get in touch with her ever since. He said he once went to the synagogue that she attended to find her but was thrown out by some Rabbi’s. I felt sorry for him, for his inability to realize the hopelessness of his task, but was intrigued by his story and wanted to know more. He said that his family immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-80’s, and that he was adopted and was mistreated by his parents. He said they did horrible things to him that he can’t talk about. He also had a brother but that he tried to talk to him but his brother refused to talk to him, and he didn’t know why. He said that he couldn’t find a job when he came to the U.S. and that he stayed in his parents’ house, mostly lying around in bed, until about the mid 90’s. He seemed like he didn’t want to go into too much detail about his family, so I didn’t push it. I figured he was depressed because he had no job and spent that time at home loathing himself. I felt slightly superior to him, because I was only depressed for two years, and now I am much more aware of when my loathing is justifiable and when it is due to my mind’s capriciousness, so I can cease the vain struggle against its hold and patiently await for my mind to calm down.
He got up and got a second cup of water. At this point of our conversation I knew exactly where he was coming from, and I felt only compassion and sympathy for him. He said that every time that he is about to be happy—like when he falls in love—or every time that something good is about to happen to him, it is taken away. Now I was struggling to hold back tears, feeling that lump in my throat, and trying to disguise my sadness by keeping a straight face. He awakened a sensitive part in my heart, and I felt that familiar ache return to my chest, for I knew exactly what he was talking about. A warm tear escaped my eye. I was astounded to know that he is still devastated by his heartbreak, which still haunts him after all those years. I fear my scars, too, may never heal, and that I am forever damned to a life of misery and hate. Then, he talked about suicide—a most natural transition. He asked me how long I thought he had left to live and if he will die of natural causes or take his own life. I said I don’t know and that it’s up to him to make that answer. I know very well the state of wanting to die, when the pain and the sorrow are too great for one person to cope with and relief seems impossible and intangible, and the conceivable—although terrible—means to reach that peace of mindlessness is only through suicide. Yes, that man was sick, but so am I and the people around us who are in denial of the terrible suffering that exists in the world and who are preoccupied only with their own petty problems. Cruelty through indifference, misery through cruelty, and instability due to our own composition and ineptitude are what the world surmounts to. Everything else is denial.
He said the Palestinian Heads were late, and that he had to go. Before we parted, he told me his name was John, and I gave him my pack of cigarettes.

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